Aerial view of State Street

State Street is seen looking north in this aerial photograph in Union Township. At top left are Grandview and Conkle avenues.

An Ellwood City homeowner who recently received a notice that the assessed value of his property had suddenly increased took his displeasure about it to the Lawrence County commissioners public meeting this week.

David Krepitch has lived in his home for more than 50 years and has never made any changes to the dimensions of his house or made any improvements to his property that would have caused his assessed value to increase. Yet a recent notice he received from the county assessor’s office showed an increase in his assessed value due to “improvements” that he didn’t make — meaning there will be an increase in what he pays in property taxes.

He learned from talking with the county’s chief assessor after the commissioners meeting that the county is using an aerial photographing system to make records more accurate, and it reflected his house has more square-footage than is recorded, he said. He has filed for an appeal to the county’s board of assessment appeals.

Krepitch’s concern is not uncommon lately.

Many people countywide are receiving notices of changes to the assessed values of their properties. In some cases, people have made improvements, others have not obtained building permits, but in other cases, like Krepitch’s, there are changes because of more precise measurements being taken that were never accurately reflected in the county’s existing tax card record system, according to chief county assessor J.R. Hardester.

The detected differences on the individual properties change the assessed values, and ultimately bring in more tax money — through a system sanctioned by the previous board of county commissioners — the late Robert Del Signore, Steve Craig and Dan Vogler, who still serves.

“We’re following through on terms of the contract,” Commissioner Chairman Morgan Boyd said of the current board of commissioners. and while he doesn’t know how much more tax revenue the system has generated so far, “it’s paid for itself,” he said of the project cost.

“This is all about tax fairness, and making sure that everyone in the county is paying their fair and appropriate share of property taxes, and that no one property owner has an unfair advantage of another one,” he emphasized. “If a taxpayer feels his or her amount is inappropriate, there’s a well-defined appeal process. It’s within their rights to appeal their assessments.”

The detection system is designed to verify the accurate data for every property owner in the county, Hardester explained.

Neshannock Township supervisor Leslie Bucci said the township received notices for 25 property changes in March, but in July, it had soared to 807 more notices of assessed value changes in properties from the county assessor’s office for April through July.

“We are finding there have been some improvements to properties, that people didn’t take out building permits, and that there were errors in the data where properties were not sketched correctly,” he said. Since the work is being done municipality by municipality, he said it’s hard to put a number on the number of properties that will have changes.

He noted the purpose of the project is to update the data and make it as accurate as possible so everyone is paying fairly.

“We’ve gotten phone calls here and there,” he said of unhappy residents, but there also have been cases where a property’s assessed value has been reduced as a result of the process.

Hardester explained the first step of the project was for the county to have its existing sketches converted into a file on its Graphic Information System and overlaid on a current image or photo of the property. A contracted software company, Evaluator Services and Technology of Greensburg, has an algorithm that determines whether a sketch or image is not a match. The system would automatically flag it to be a minor or major mismatch, which would recreate a report for them to go look at those properties, he said.

The aerial photography is being done by a company called Eagle View, formerly known as Pictometry. Using airplanes and cameras, its planes fly every two or three years over the county, using updated aerial imagery. They take straight-down views and images at an angle to provide four-dimensional walk-arounds of everybody’s properties, Hardester said. “It’s a snapshot in time, not a live image.”

So far in the process, the county has added “a good amount of revenue” to the tax rolls. The actual amount will be presented to the commissioners in a report once the project is complete, which he expects could be by the end of this year. Some of the properties will get interim bills with changes included in them.

He anticipates that more than 15,000 notices will be sent out to property owners, showing their respective changes.

The county has a total of 52,196 taxable properties, according to assessment office records.

“We’ve sent change of assessment notices out every two or three weeks,” Hardester said. The public’s reaction to them has has been “mixed emotions.”

“Some people have been very upset. Others understand that we’re trying to update the records,” Hardester said. “We want to make sure everyone is paying their fair share of taxes.”

Krepitch stated at the meeting that “spot reassessment is illegal.”

Hardester explained that the process does not constitute a reassessment of properties.

“A reassessment would update the assessed values of all of the properties in the county, based off the current market,” he said. “But we are still using the values from our last reassessment. We are just updating the data using 2003 assessment values.”

The county spent several million dollars to conduct a countywide property reassessment in 2003.

The county’s cost for the flyover photos is about $60,000 per year, every two or three years, and the cost for the evaluator services is about $150,000 for Evaluator Services and Technology to review every parcel and update the software.

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Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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